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Design as patterns

The implications of reconsidering a distributed mass production of units that operate under combinatorics are not only formal, but socioeconomical. It’s important to note that the framework described here is not an attempt to describe the “nature” of design but rather a conscious attempt to design a framework for social cooperation, developing the thesis that combinatorial surplus is a value proposition that designs down the barrier of entry on new designers and offers exponential opportunities for socially appropriated innovation. While the design of units requires high technical knowledge, considering principles of engineering and fabrication, patterns, understood as the production of granular assemblies through the combination of units, belong to an iterative, even playful, form of design speculation, where the combinations of already established units can yield a diversity of results with varying degrees of social relevance. While it might seem pertinent that there is a symbiosis between the production of units and the development of patterns, the search space offered by all the possible combinations between units offers the opportunity of open design to non-expert users, generating a feedback loop into the system and generating design literacy along the way.

There have been two central areas of research that are able to contribute in the production of valuable patterns: artificial intelligence and crowds. In the case of artificial intelligence, algorithms are used to search for patterns that perform under specific criteria. An Al algorithm might not necessarily understand what makes a pattern meaningful but will establish correlations of value by learning from large training data sets. While this technique might be able to replicate, adapt and even find patterns that have not yet been acknowledged, it lacks any feedback mechanism with the production of culture itself, which is the engine that determines what is meaningful for a particular social system. An Al, bound by its domain, as discussed in Chapter 2 and described by the Black Swan, is blind to phenomena that escape the solution space. Here is where the engagement of crowds can offer an open-ended proliferation of patterns.The process of value production is coupled with cultural adoption, so it is only natural that the production and utilization of patterns would benefit from this social coupling.

At this point it is important to note that the coupling of discrete combinatorial design with social systems could offer radically different connotations. One perspective would encourage crowd harvesting, utilizing centralized forms of data collection where social engagement is equated to free labor. This position is profoundly problematic and fundamentally aligned to the neoliberal practices described in Chapter 1 .The position that will be developed here and throughout Chapter 5 is aligned to the production of the Commons, where social production acquires local cultural value in the hands of the members engaging with the labor. The output of such production is also expected to remain in the communities that produce it.

Unlike Alexander’s formalization of design patterns as finite, static and timeless,26 design patterns are framed here as flexible, mutable and highly idiosyncratic. Patterns are the formalization of a temporal configuration of units. Patterns offer a form of weak and open-ended holism that does not dictate the require performance or role of parts.This is whatTimothy Morton calls “subscendence wholes,”27 where the whole is not more than the sum of its parts but less. Morton doesn’t deny the existence of the whole but suggests that parts always exceed the totality:

Very well, a tree exists in the same way as a forest. The forest is ontologically one. The trees are more than one. The parts of the forest (the trees—but there is so many more parts in fact) outnumber the whole.This doesn’t mean they “are more important than the whole.” This is the kind of anti-holistic reductionism that neoliberalism promotes: “There is no such thing as society; there are only individuals.” We need holism, but a special, weak holism that isn’t theistic.28

Semi-Lattice Structure used by Christopher Alexander in “The City is not a Tree” in 1965

FIGURE 3.21 Semi-Lattice Structure used by Christopher Alexander in “The City is not a Tree” in 1965. Diagrams redrawn by Nikos Salingaros, copyright Christopher Alexander and the Center for Environmental Structure.

In Morton’s view, an object can always belong to multiple wholes as part of what could be described as a mesocosm; a blurry boundary where objects come and go.29 Like Morton, Alexander challenged the interpretation that the city (Alexander’s object, or “whole” of study) was indeed a hierarchy, or a tree.1" The tree suggests a neatly hierarchical pattern where order is nested at identifiable layers. Alexander suggests that the city should be understood as a semi-lattice; a structure with multiple overlapping groupings, where units would belong to a multiplicity of partial wholes.

Alexander’s semilattice structure offers a powerful visual representation of a complex non-hierarchical groupings. What is not challenged by such a structure is subservience of parts to the functional whole. Morton, on the other hand, offers a version of partial objects, an alteration of the meaning of holism where the parts are able to exceed the whole to which they belong. What is described here as design patterns in the context of Discrete Architecture should be seen as an open-ended aggregate, with the potential for a multiplicity of sub-groupings where the parts resist the complete subscription to a totality.

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